“The Rebel of Laguardia”
On a beautiful October morning we made our way to Laguardia to check out one of the first Rioja producers I started to collect and taste, Bodega Artadi. The name Artadi is Basque from the Holm oak tree.
This was the first day the sun shone in complete splendor drenching the valleys between the northern and southern mountain ranges, allowing us to see, for the first time, the true grandeur of the Cantabrian Mountains foot to peak, east to west.
Artadi was founded in 1985 originally as a co-op, buying grapes from growers in the surrounding village of Laguardia. Today, Artadi is run by one of the original founders, the controversial and highly respected Juan Carlos Lopez de Lacalle. In the early 1990’s he purchased a majority ownership of the co-op and moved it away from the co-op model to a producer specific winery that we know today as Artadi. In a recent and controversial move, Juan Carlos pulled Artadi out of the Rioja DOCa because its rules, in his view, are too antiquated and rigid. He feels, like Telmo Rodriguez and many other like-minded producers, the current system is not reflective of his personal beliefs regarding single site wines and terroir. It’s a complicated issue, but the basic fact is that single vineyard designation is not something that Rioja’s wine governing body (Consejo) allows. Producers are prohibited from using the site name on the labels of the wine and the use of the words Rioja and the standard 4 classifications: Gran Reserva, Reserva, Crianza and Joven. The Consejo require most producers to stick to the standard 4 classifications. So in order to do this, and this is a brief description of the issue as there is more to it, he has flipped the bird to the regulatory body of Rioja and will not use the any of the Rioja terms on its labels.
Organic and biodynamic principles are followed in the vineyards to farm all vineyard sites naturally. Fermentations take place in French oak open top tanks for the single site premium wines and the Joven carbonic wine. Steel fermentation tanks handle the wines made from the younger vines. All wines spend time in French oak after fermentation. The premium single vineyard wines and Pagos Viejos are aged in new French oak 225L barrels for 12-14 months. The regional and village wines age for 12-14 months in used 2 and 3-year French oak 225L barrels.
We arrived on time for what was a typical tour of the facility nearing the end of the fermentation process with most of the wines already in barrel from the excellent growing season that was 2015. Only 2 fermentation tanks had wine in them, while a few others were being cleaned with pumice flying and hoses firing hot water.
We headed out to the crown jewel of the family, the El Pison vineyard. A short drive from the production facility, El Pison is planted to a high majority of Tempranillo with the rest a mix of other red and white varietals. The soils are a mix of sand and clays on top of the mother rock of calcareous limestone, the core of the terroir in most of this region in Spain. A mix of round and jagged chunky rocks mix in with the top soil. On the site is an old grain mill where a stream once provided water to power the wheels to process the cereals that once grew in the region. A gorgeous day in a beautiful vineyard, we snapped a few great photos and moved on to Laguardia for the last part of the tour.
The village of Laguardia is where the family home is located and where the wines age in caves deep below ground that have existed for centuries under the village. The entire village has a network of these tunnels and caves, many of which used to be interconnected to move between different parts of the village below ground. The caves were once used to make wine and to seek shelter when the city may have been attacked in times of war in the middle-ages. Once the Artadi wines complete malolactic fermentation in barrel at the winemaking facility, they are moved here in barrel to finish the aging process.
Set up like a medieval vertical fortress, the tasting was on the second floor above the street where a beautiful kitchen, a huge center table, and beautiful original works of art adorn walls and pedestals.
Artadi has expanded its footprint from Rioja across Spain and makes wine from several DOC. We tasted through 4 wines: 2 Rioja, 1 Grenache from Navarra, and 1 Monastrell (Mourvedre) from Alicante. The Rioja wines of Artadi become a little complicated in setup as they are in the transition to the new format of single village and vineyard wines. One very important caveat from leaving the DOCa is that the new system of naming the wines at Artadi cannot say Rioja anywhere on the labels. Since most of my readers are American, I will start with what was normally available in our markets and explain where they fit into the new plan with Artadi.
For the longest time, El Pison has sat rather lonely at the apex of the Rioja wines that Artadi makes. More premium single site wines are being made, so it is no longer the only premium single vineyard Artadi wine. However, today it is still the most important wine made by Artadi and is considered one of the iconic wines of Spain. Made from 70-year-old 100% old vine bush Tempranillo, El Pison is fermented entirely in the large French oak tanks and then spends 12-14 months in new French oak.
Pagos Viejos is one of the few wines that will remain from the old set of wines that is a blend of different old vine sites. Whichever barrels do not make it into the single vineyard premium wines, are instead used to make Pagos Viejos. Larger in production than the El Pison, and priced around $75-100, it is also a very important wine and maybe the one that most people are familiar with as it is the most widely available Rioja wine in the market by Artadi in the US and scores well with the critics consistently. Aged entirely in new French oak, the wine is also 100% Tempranillo as previously stated from a mix of the old vines.
Vinas de Gain
The original village Artadi Rioja wine, Vinas de Gain is similar to the Pagos Viejas in that it is a blend of the different village wines. Made from the younger vines that are 20-40 years old. Over time I believe that this wine will be phased out to give way to the single village wines.
Single Village Wines
These are the entry level wines made from 80 hectares of Tempranillo vines spread across these 3 villages. Aged in seasoned 2 and 3-year-old 225L barrels, the oak influence is less impactful on these wines. This allows for the fruit to obtain more focus more immediately and the wines are more accessible at an earlier age for enjoyment and are on the lower side of the price spectrum. The village wines are as follows:
- Vinas de Laguardia
- Vinas de Elvillar
- Vinas de Leza
Single Vineyard Wines
With El Pison as the granddaddy of this group, the 3 other single vineyard wines represent the best barrels of the old vine plots that show the individual and specific terroir characteristics. Each one is aged in new French oak for 12-14 months.
- El Pison – 2 hectares
- Valdegines – 7 hectares
- La Poza de Ballesteros – 3.6 hectares
- El Carretil – 5.3 hectares
I am a firm believer that once Artadi fully converts over to the village and single vineyard designations for their Rioja wines, after abandoning the Rioja DOCa, it should be easier than ever to ascertain the significance of each wine in the hierarchy.